As much as rushing along to the hottest new restaurants is part of my job at Londonist (which I love), there’s something about the stampede to get to each place that really grates. I’ve been baffled by the mediocrity of a few openings recently – those which people have completely lost-their-shit-raved-over. Hype makes us lose perspective, and I think if it’s your job to make judgements about restaurants then frankly part of the spec is being able to stay level headed.
It can be toxic, the silliness of the London restaurant scene, and things have ramped up a gear with Instagram. Now I’m a heavy user, don’t get me wrong (like food and cats? Head on over) but I feel there’s a nasty, competitive edge to it now that sees people bashing around between openings like loose pinballs. Please believe me when I say I do not have anyone in particular in mind when I say that, and yet the fact that I fear retribution on that point underlines what I’m saying quite neatly.
Increasingly I feel like I’m becoming a grandma when it a) comes to blogging (nearly 10 years, guys), and b) when it comes to selecting restaurants. Yes, I’ve been to most on the latest ‘must-try’ list but when I want to eat just for fun (just for fun!), I’m likely to head to an old favourite or even better, out of town. Weekends are now spent hopping on creaky old trains and rattling past hedgerows as I head out to places like The Whitebrook or more recently, The Royal Oak in Paley Street.
Paley Street is a hamlet out in the rich bit near Maidenhead which is best known for Heston’s gaffs. It is a place with not much going on really, apart from a few houses and pubs with brass horseshoes, open fires and gardens full of dense gnat clouds hanging in the afternoon sun. As I’ve mentioned before I grew up in the sticks, and so these places draw me in with their doorstep sandwiches and ale in bubble pints.
The Royal Oak probably does a mean sandwich, but its true credentials are more impressive. I don’t think we need to go into the fact that it’s owned by Michael Parkinson and his son (photo hanging above the door, natch) because the food is fabulous and the place itself is about as relaxing as a frazzled London food writer could wish for on her day off. I don’t care who owns it, I just want to have my well deserved jolly then piss off back to London feeling like I’ve left all the ragey bits behind.
So we sat in a room full of people we didn’t recognise or care to, then plunged greedily into a lunch that we strung out for a good three hours because some professional skills are always worth harnessing, no matter where you are. We ripped into a 6 piece bread basket and its accompanying spiced aubergine hummus, relishing the fact that this pub could just make something called ‘spiced aubergine hummus’, without worrying about whether it was hummus or baba ganoush, or where exactly it fit into their ‘concept’. Then we scoffed a mini scotch egg which it’s still perfectly okay to enjoy outside of London, before moving onto three courses of lunch which were all pretty much faultless.
A smoked herring ravioli was bouncy, like a Thai fish cake in texture, but the smoky fish wrapped in dough and perched delicately in a bowl with a tiara of chilli jam. For my main I ordered a fillet of beef – something I’d never do here, partly because rib-eye is my favourite cut but partly because well, it’s just not the done thing, is it? Good fillet can have flavour, but more importantly, it has the most brilliant softness, particularly when nuzzled up to a tripled cooked chip that’s been swiped through an indecent amount of bearnaise.
The dessert was perhaps the most London-y part of the whole meal, a take on a Snickers bar which was actually a ruddy impressive stack of gorgeous chocolate, peanut butter and caramel things and you know what? I still think about it now. Petit fours happened but frankly I was pissed by that point, so we retired to a couple of armchairs to wait for a taxi which someone ordered via the old method of picking up a phone and asking for it.
Why don’t we ever hear much about this Michelin starred pub? Because it’s overshadowed by its famous neighbours, I should imagine. People spend their time roaring down to the Hind’s Head or slobbering over The Fat Duck when they could be having a right old knees up a few miles down the road. The frenzy takes our eyes off the ball, just as it does back in London where the places that plod along doing a solid job get sidelined by new arrivals. There’s a lot to be said for just stopping and looking around every once in a while – you might just find you couldn’t see the wood for the trees.